Last Saturday, the call came in to the Stillwater County Sheriff’s Office at about 4:45 p.m.
Up near Nye on the Stillwater River Trail, around where it splits off toward Sioux Charley Lake, a Montana man had fallen approximately 50 feet into a boulder field in a remote area. He had been rappelling with a group of about four or five people.
For the next 12 hours, seven different agencies, including several from other counties, were involved in the rescue effort. Another four offered their help. A helicopter that was called in to pick up the injured man had to turn back because of dangerously high winds in the area. At night, in the mountains, volunteers carried the man on a Stokes board through snow, mud and rocks.
“I’ll put it this way,” Undersheriff Randy Smith said. “Speaking with a couple of our members from Stillwater County who have been involved for quite some time in our search and rescue operation, they said that was the most technical operation they’ve been on.”
The risks baked into search and rescue work requires that it be a group pursuit, and it often involves agencies crossing county lines. In a time when traveling and gathering in large groups have become potential public health risks due to COVID-19, a growing number of search and rescue organizations in Montana are asking people to take extra precautions to improve the likelihood they can make it out of the backcountry under their own power.
On Tuesday, Red Lodge Fire and Rescue recorded a video that was shared on the Carbon County Alert Facebook page urging people to adhere to social distancing and not engage in risky behavior while enjoying the outdoors. Just three days later, Red Lodge Mountain announced on social media that it would temporarily prohibit all uphill travel at Red Lodge Mountain “in response to the public’s failure to comply with Governor Bullock’s stay-at-home order, requiring individuals to social distance and avoid behavior that puts unnecessary strain on local emergency services.”
The closure includes hiking, touring, skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tubing, snowshoeing and other recreational activities.
The busiest and probably largest search and rescue group in the state is in Gallatin County. Gallatin County is also where the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the state are. By Friday afternoon, the state was reporting 101 cases there.
Already the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue group is modifying its approach to missions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. The group has about 150 people and averages about 110 missions a year. They have teams in West Yellowstone, Big Sky and Bozeman. They also have a number of specialty teams, like swiftwater rescue and dive teams, a heli-team for helicopter operations, an alpine team for high-angle rescue missions and a hasty team for initial quick responses.
Jeremy Kopp is a captain with the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office and is also the rescue commander for the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue. He’s been involved in search and rescue for about 10 years.
They’re still getting calls for missions, he said by phone Friday.
Search and rescue calls typically go out to everyone in a search and rescue group, and anybody who’s available will go.
“The change in the operation now is the call goes out, and as we’re able to determine what the mission requires, we’re getting just the essential people and trying to manage the numbers on that response,” he said.
He said the change won’t affect the quality and capability of search and rescue operations. It’s intended to keep the size of gatherings down when possible in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Kopp acknowledged that in certain scenarios, COVID-19 could spread quickly in search and rescue groups. It’s something Smith, in Stillwater County, broke down in detail.
“You take search and rescue folks, they come from all different walks of life,” Smith said of his county’s all-volunteer group. “Who have all these other people been in contact with? And what is the chance of them being in contact, currently, with what’s going on, being in contact with somebody who has COVID?”
Smith said such a scenario could quickly diminish the county’s search and rescue group, which ranges from about 10 to 15 people.
“With search and rescue guidelines, you don’t go by yourself,” Smith said. “So it’s drawing a lot of people together and essentially exhausts a bunch of resources for something that essentially could be stopped by people following the governor’s orders.”
Among the exceptions in Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order issued last week was recreation. It’s still allowed, but there are guidelines Montanans are asked to follow that are specifically designed to reduce the burden on local first responders.
According to the announcement from Bullock’s office, “Montanans are discouraged from outdoor recreation activities that pose enhanced risks of injury or could otherwise stress the ability of local first responders to address the COVID-19 emergency (e.g., backcountry skiing in a manner inconsistent with avalanche recommendations or in closed terrain).”
Bullock’s office also told Lee Montana Newspapers that Montanans should avoid unnecessary travel per the directive and do any outdoor recreating close to home.
A simple way to help decide the safety of your outing is what Kopp calls “the mom test.”
“If your mom would approve of your outing, you’re probably good to go,” Kopp said.
For Smith, a key word is preparedness. Let someone know where you’re going and what your plan is. Let them know when you’re coming back. Check the weather conditions. Have emergency items, like warm clothes, a first aid kit, food and water. Have the right equipment.
“If you’re going on a hike, you need to be prepared,” he said. “So what happens if you do fall? Do you have the stuff to take care of yourself if you end up having to stay in the mountains overnight?
Smith said people from outside Stillwater County can too easily underestimate how harsh conditions are in the mountains, especially this time of year.
Even routine outings can quickly devolve into life-threatening situations, Kopp said. He described one incident in Gallatin County where a skier went to a popular area in Hyalite Canyon not far from town. On the way out, the skier got disoriented, took a wrong trail, and then died of hypothermia after expending their energy trekking through rough country. The skier made it within 150 yards of a road, Kopp said.
“The backcountry is literally that close to us. It’s one of those things we love in Montana, but we have to recognize that when you go out into that quick trip, those quick trips can turn into the most dangerous ones if you don’t do a little preparation.”
Kopp said in getting the message across to the public, his agency is trying to seek a balance. He said he knows how important it is for both mental and physical health to get outside and be in the outdoors. “Getting out is a healthy thing, as long as people are monitoring their social distance, and if they can manage their outings with some basic risk management.
“Be healthy, take care of yourselves, but pick the more conservative outing for now,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to come get you if things go bad. But we want you to recognize when we do we are putting our volunteers who have lives and professions of their own at risk, at increased risk, during this time when we’re combating the COVID epidemic.”
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